Unnameable Text: Life, Critique and Uncriticizability from Kant to Benjamin

Law, Christopher. 2019. Unnameable Text: Life, Critique and Uncriticizability from Kant to Benjamin. Doctoral thesis, Goldsmiths, University of London [Thesis]

Text (Unnameable Text: Life, Critique and Uncriticizability from Kant to Benjamin)
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Abstract or Description

This project explores the idea of ‘uncriticizability’, a term used on rare but significant occasions in Walter Benjamin’s writing about literature, art, and criticism. Serving both as a framework for Benjamin’s recognition of the foundational crisis undergone by criticism in the late eighteenth century and as a cornerstone of his concerns about the possibilities and limits of criticism in the 1920s and early 1930s, uncriticizability plays a multi-faceted but often enigmatic role in the history and philosophy of modern literature and literary criticism.

The thesis begins by considering the diverse implications of Immanuel Kant’s entanglement of poetic form and organic life in his Critique of the Power of Judgment. After outlining recursive tensions in Kant’s attempts to find a place for poetry in the third Critique, I show how the theorists of early German Romanticism, rather than assuming Kant to have successfully closed his critical system, developed a theory that imagined literature’s ‘life’ as its infinite capacity for critical renewal in historically diverse contexts. Through close engagements with Benjamin’s early work on criticism and language, I offer a new reading of his doctoral dissertation, ‘The Concept of Criticism in German Romanticism’, arguing that the idea of literature’s ‘criticizability’ here arises as a conceptual solution to a singular linguistic problem, which ‘uncriticizability’ is more likely to capture. In registering the continued relevance of pre-Kantian philosophies of nature, uncriticizability, however, simultaneously confronts literary criticism with its own, apparently inescapable grounding in myth. This argument is pursued through readings of Goethe’s Elective Affinities and Benjamin’s essay thereon, as well as a range of other literary, philosophical, and scientific texts, both exalted and obscure. The problem of uncriticizability, I argue, captures a trait shared between poetry and politics: like literature, politics is irreducible to the temporal conditions that render it fully comprehensible.

Item Type:

Thesis (Doctoral)

Identification Number (DOI):



Walter Benjamin, Immanuel Kant, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Friedrich Schlegel, Critique, Criticizability, Uncriticizability, Literary Criticism, Life, Romanticism

Departments, Centres and Research Units:

English and Comparative Literature


30 June 2019

Item ID:


Date Deposited:

10 Jul 2019 11:21

Last Modified:

07 Sep 2022 17:14



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